Martin Baggoley recalls an infamous murder committed on the Lancashire coast a century ago this week
On the morning of Christmas Eve 1919, a man collecting driftwood in the sand hills between St Annes and Blackpool, discovered the body of an attractive and fashionably dressed young woman, who had been shot four times.
She was in possession of a bank book, which enabled the police to identify her as 25 year old Kathleen Elsie Breaks of Bradford, Yorkshire. She was wearing several items of valuable jewellery and no cash appeared to be missing, which led the police to conclude robbery was not the motive for the crime.
Inquiries revealed she and her husband John Breaks, a Bridlington motor mechanic, were separated and she had left Bradford the previous day, telling friends she was taking a short break alone, in Blackpool. A receipt from the previous evening showed that she had booked into the Palatine Hotel and it was learnt that after dining, she asked a waitress for directions to Lytham.
Within hours of the body’s discovery, the investigating officers established from her family and letters found in her possession, that for more than a year, Kathleen had been having an affair with 31-year-old Frederick Holt. He was a man of independent means and a member of a respectable family from nearby Ansdell. In the Great War, he served as a lieutenant in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and was invalided home in mid-1915, following the Battle of Festubert.
In one of the letters he had sent to Kathleen, Holt referred to her as ‘My Dear Darling Kathleen’ and in another, told her he was lonely without her and that she was ‘the only being in the world for me’. However, in the more recent letters, he was urging her to take out an insurance policy on her life for £10,000, naming him as a major beneficiary. She finally agreed to do so, but two insurance companies had refused to accept the business as they were not married. However, Holt was advised that she could take out a policy on her own life and leave the money to him in her will.
A Bradford solicitor confirmed he prepared such a will for her and had received it back on Christmas morning, bearing her signature. Holt was to receive her very expensive wedding ring and almost £5,000.
Holt’s bank manager revealed that his current account was overdrawn, but this was not a problem as he had sufficient funds in other accounts. Holt was not therefore under any immediate financial pressure. Nevertheless, the police were satisfied he was the killer and they believed the motive for the crime was a desire to ensure his future financial security, which the money from the insurance policy would provide him with. The murder was thought to have taken place shortly after Kathleen signed the will.
Furthermore, at 10.30pm on the night of the crime, the suspect was seen in the vicinity of the sand hills by a tramcar driver and conductor, which was about the time the murder was thought to have been committed.
Incriminating physical evidence was recovered when a search of Holt’s residence was made, as wet shoes, covered with sand were found, which matched prints discovered close to Kathleen’s body. Significantly, he was also known to have possessed a pair of gloves similar to a blood stained pair left at the scene by the killer.
Four days after the murder, some children were playing on the beach near the crime scene and came across a six-chamber revolver, from which four cartridges had been fired. A check was made of the serial number, which proved that Holt had purchased the weapon from a Preston gunsmith in August 1914. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested and charged with Kathleen’s murder.
At a preliminary hearing before the town’s magistrates, Holt’s solicitor, Mr Woosnam, questioned John Breaks about the breakdown of the marriage. He readily acknowledged that he and Kathleen had both soon realised they had made a mistake by marrying, but they remained on friendly terms. He continued by saying they had discussed divorce and Kathleen was adamant she did not want maintenance from him.
Mr Woosnam did not accuse him of the murder, but it appeared to be something he would perhaps raise at the trial. However, John impressed as a level headed individual who was genuinely distressed by Kathleen’s death and he had no reason to wish her dead.
On the day Holt’s trial was to begin, his barrister Edward Marshall Hall, claimed the accused was insane and therefore unfit to stand trial. The judge agreed to hold a preliminary hearing and details were given of his war wounds, which led to constant pain, especially to his legs, which caused him to become depressed. In 1916, a medical board decided he was unfit to return to the front and he was given light duties.
Dr. R P Smith, a former superintendent of Bethlehem Hospital in London had examined Holt after his arrest and insisted he was insane. Extracts were also read from a letter the accused wrote to his solicitor from Manchester’s Strangeways Prison, in which he described being attacked in his cell by dogs and swarms of flies and ants.
The prosecution rejected these claims by pointing out that no mention of his alleged insanity had been raised previously. The jury agreed and it having been established that he was sane and should face trial, a new jury was sworn in and the trial proper began.
An attempt was made by his parents and sister to provide him with an alibi on the night of the murder, but they could not account for his movements at key moments. The evidence against him was overwhelming and the jury took less than an hour to convict him of the crime and he was sentenced to death.
Holt’s appeal was heard on March 29th and the defence was allowed to introduce new evidence regarding hereditary insanity on his mother’s side of the family. The superintendent of a private asylum in Essex testified that a female cousin was admitted in July 1914 suffering from “chronic delusion and insanity with dementia”.
An old servant of Richard Rothwell, Holt’s maternal grandfather recalled the elderly man’s often odd behaviour.
He would, for instance, refuse to drink tea or coffee without a servant having first tasted it, to ensure it was not poisoned and he would not smoke his pipe until someone had tested it, to make sure it contained no toxic substances.
It was also stated that following his return from France, the condemned man travelled to Malaya, where he contracted syphilis, which it was argued, would have exacerbated his mental health problems.
His bravery under fire in the service of his country was also mentioned, but despite these submissions, the appeal failed.
There was a heavy rainfall on the morning of April 13th 1920, but this did not prevent a large crowd gathering outside the gates of Strangeways, where, within its walls, Holt was hanged, still protesting his innocence.